When I decided to visit Machu Picchu, I was so focused on getting to Peru that I kept delaying another important decision: Which route would I take to access the sacred site?
Should I walk along the well-worn paths of the Inca Trail? What about following in the footsteps of chaski messengers on the Cachicata Trail? The more time I spent researching my options, the more possibilities I discovered.
After months of indecision, I finally chose to hike the Salkantay Trail with Cusco-based company Salkantay Trekking. The four-day, 46-mile route is one of the most popular alternatives to the oversubscribed Inca Trail, and it didn’t take long to find out why.
The route’s namesake peak, Nevado Salkantay, soars to more than 20,000 feet above sea level. Though it is merely the twelfth highest peak in the Peruvian Andes, it is one of the most revered.
Early on a brisk October morning, I was the last of my group to be picked up in Cusco. By the time the sky lightened, we had reached our starting point, the Challacancha trailhead. Tawny-colored mountains surrounded us, their summits concealed by low clouds. Horses grazed beside earthen-walled homes, black-and-red moths fluttered past, and a narrow irrigation channel bubbled along our path, providing a placid morning soundtrack.
“My ancestors were nature lovers. They felt they belonged to the earth,” explained our guide Hipolito Inquil, who has led treks to Machu Picchu for five years. “They worshipped these things—the sun, the mountains, the snow.”
For this reason, Hipolito instructed the group to choose a small stone as we walked, which we would use to build an apacheta, or offering to the snow, once we reached Salkantay Pass.
As much as I enjoyed learning about the cultural landscape of the Andes, trekking through the physical landscape was astounding.
“In one day, you’re going to see everything,” Hipolito said. “Around the world, there are 117 different ecological life zones. Here in Peru, we have 84.”
Day two of the trek made this fact especially evident, as we descended from the snow-capped pass’s puna grassland into a humid Amazonian rain forest teeming with mosquitoes, all within a matter of hours.
After a brief pause for lunch, we struck off on a side trip to the Humantay Glacier. The scrubby, striated slopes leading up to it were far steeper than they appeared. When I paused to catch my breath—which was often—I could count my pulse without placing a finger on my wrist.
An hour and a half later, we reached the lake at the base of the glacier, its quiet surface a pale jade. Water traced silvery veins across the sheer cliff face; ice frequently broke away, filling the air with the sound of thunder and the smoky whiteness of an avalanche; countless apacheta lined the shore.
We were the only people there. As if by an unspoken agreement, members of the group scattered, each pulled in a different direction by the experience. I found a seat on a secluded boulder as tears filled my eyes.
No matter the final destination of a trip—even one as magnificent as Machu Picchu—it is the wonders that unfold along the way that bring us the deepest joy.